Governance Structure

Something that sets our start-up co-op apart from others is our hybrid multi-stakeholder model. Both workers and consumers will be owners of the co-op. While it is too early in our project to make a definitive decision on our governance structure, we are considering collective management. This means that there would be no bosses or hierarchy, just workers co-managing themselves. For anyone who is familiar with the collective management model, it is well known how challenging this can be, but above all how rewarding and fulfilling it can be. It is true democracy in the workplace. 

Several local businesses operate collectively- Valley Green Feast, Collective Copies, and Pelham Auto to name a few. Workers in a collective have a direct say in how their workplace is run, which makes it more empowering than a job in a traditional, hierarchical workplace. But how does a collective management structure in a small worker-owned business translate to a full-scale grocery store? We are looking to San Francisco's Rainbow Grocery for inspiration and guidance. Rainbow Grocery's 25,000 sq. ft. vegetarian co-op is owned by over 250 workers, and those workers manage themselves collectively. 

For a more in-depth look at how this governance structure works for Rainbow Grocery, take a look at a presentation put together by Leslie Leyba of Rainbow Grocery's Co-op Committee:

Rainbow Grocery's collective management structure can be applied to our own co-op's governance. Each department of the co-op will act as its own collective, setting and enforcing its own policy. For example, the produce department could have 5-8 collective workers, sharing the responsibilities of ordering and stocking the produce, along with the various other day-to-day tasks of running the produce department. The produce collective would be responsible for the hiring, training and evaluation of its worker-owners, as well as their discipline and potential termination. This would be the case across the board for the co-op's other various departments- the cashiers, the dairy, bulk, and meat departments, as well as the office. The office collective would be responsible for the bookkeeping and various other clerical co-op tasks. 

Each department's collective would meet once every two to three weeks, and the whole co-op staff would meet once a month. As with traditional consumer-owned co-ops, there would be a board of directors, however it would be made up of both workers and consumers. The board would be responsible for things like establishing and approving the co-op's budget, implementing new projects and goals, acting as the legal representation for the co-op, and making sure the co-op remains true to its mission and vision. Our bylaws state that the members of the board will be elected by and from the workers and consumers respectively, with a three year term.

In order to alleviate the different departments as well as the board of some of the more mundane day-to-day tasks, Rainbow Grocery has a Storewide Steering Committee, responsible for such things as assisting departments with policy, dealing with conflict and mediation, safety considerations, pest control, and overall merchandising and signage. This is a seven person committee, elected by and from the workers, with a one year term. The Storewide Steering Committee may prove to be useful in our own governance structure. 

As we work to make this co-op a reality, we will continue to work on the development of our collective governance structure. As we do so, we'll update this page to give you more up-to-date information on what this will look like. 


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commented 2015-08-25 12:02:12 -0400
Those are some great concerns, thanks for bringing them up!

As far as decisions about what products to stock, these will likely be both consumer and worker-driven. Consumers will let the co-op know what products they’d like to see on the shelves by way of “voting with their dollars”- the better a product sells, the more likely it is to stay on the shelves. We also envision having an active flow of product suggestions and a means of giving feedback to the buyers. Workers who are in charge of purchasing will make decisions about the products they stock the shelves with by taking this feedback into account.

As far as interpreting the mission and vision of the co-op, the equal representation of workers and consumers on the board of the directors means that reflecting these differing interests is intrinsic in the board’s function. While consumers will likely provide more of the capital (although worker buy-in is higher than consumer buy-in, and the co-op is likely to employ 50-100 workers depending on the size of the co-op), equal representation is important to maintaining the democratic nature of the co-op.

Worker-owned co-ops tend to result in workers who are more invested (not just financially, but emotionally) in and empowered by the work that they do. Turnover in such workplaces tends to be lower, which is better for the longevity of the business as well as the consistency of the product. Happier, more fulfilled workers lead to happier consumers.

Does this answer your question? Thanks for starting this dialogue! It would be great to hear other perspectives on the matter.
commented 2015-05-19 15:45:33 -0400
Sounds like a great place to work! How can consumer-owners be sure it’ll be a great place to shop?

For example, how will decisions about what to stock be made? At Rainbow Groceries, the worker-owners make those decisions. But here, there will have to be some process to make both worker- and consumer-owners happy.

Further down the line, board of directors will have to interpret the mission and vision of the co-op. How can it be constructed to equitably reflect the collective investments of you, the founders, the then-current workers, and the consumers who (presumably) provide much of the capital to get the co-op off the ground?
Amherst Food Co-op
A start-up worker- and consumer-owned food co-op in Amherst, MA